Whither Syria? Whither America?
So far Arab Spring has done little to increase Israelis' optimism. According to the latest Pew survey, a solid majority of Egyptians support abrogation of the peace treaty with Israel; the Egyptian-Israeli gas pipeline has already been sabotaged twice; and Egyptian efforts to interdict weapons smuggling into Gaza have been abandoned altogether.
Does the possibility of the Assad dynasty falling in Syria offer some compensation? Opinion is divided. Writing in National Review, CIA veteran Michael Scheuer notes that since 1973, the Syrians have maintained quiet along the border with Israel. After killing 20,000 or more civilians in the Moslem Brotherhood stronghold of Hama in 1982, Hafez al-Assad embarked on determined effort to placate the Islamists, building thousands of mosques and opening Sharia schools. As a consequence, argues Scheuer, in the event Bashar Assad's regime falls, Islamists are likely to play a major role in whatever follows.
Yet for the very same reason, the ever astute Barry Rubin, argues that Islamists have played no role in the current street demonstrations: the Assads, father and son, have pursued a nearly ideal Islamist foreign policy. Syria is, after Iran, the largest international supporter of terrorists, including Hizbullah; it has allowed anti-American fighters to pour over the border into Iraq; and it hosts the world's leading terrorist organizations. In addition, Rubin places the hardcore support for Islamists in Syria at 15% of the population, about half that of Egypt, and with much less potential for growth due to Syria's multi-ethnic society.
The eventual victor in Syria is impossible to predict. But a bloodbath appears likely. The Assads and the upper levels of the military are Alawites, who comprise only 11% of the population and are viewed as heretics by mainstream Moslems. If the regime falls, the Alawites will be massacred. (Nearly a decade ago, David Wurmser, then Vice-President Dick Cheney's senior Middle East advisor, told me that Lebanon's Beka Valley is much more important to the Assads than the Golan because the escape route north for Alawites fleeing Damascus to their ancestral homelands passes through it.)
Spengler (the unlikely nom de plume of the brilliant David P. Goldman) suggests the most likely outcome is prolonged instability, as two groups with nothing to gain from compromise and everything to lose from defeat – the dispossessed poor and the entrenched elite -- battle it out in the streets. That prolonged period of instability, with the corpses piling up in the streets, represents a setback for Iran and Hizbullah, who will lose, at least temporarily, a crucial ally.
ABOUT ONE THING there is no dispute: The Obama administration's response to the massacres in Syria has been shameful, both morally and strategically. After the initial shootings of demonstrators by security forces, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's implausibly characterized Bashar Assad as something of a "reformer." The administration's silence echoes its initial failure to offer any support to Iran's 2009 Green Revolution and makes mockery of the justifications for the "humanitarian" intervention in Libya, which now appears likely to generate as many civilian casualties as it prevented.
No one has suggested American military intervention in Syria. But when pressed about the failure to respond in any fashion, Clinton had only this to offer: There has been no universal condemnation, no Security Council resolution, and no call by the Arab League. In other words, America has abdicated conduct of its own foreign policy in light of American interests and values. That responsibility has been outsourced to such moral luminaries as the UN and the Arab League. The American failure of initiative is particularly striking with respect to Syria precisely because so rarely do humanitarian values and national interest so perfectly dovetail. The fall of the Assad dynasty would remove one of the world's most actively anti-American regimes and one of the most repressive.
Unfortunately, this administration believes not just that American power has been exercised immorally in the past, but that America's superpower status is itself immoral, and that only multinational bodies command legitimacy. That is bad news for both America and the world.
No Diamond Ring for the Kallah – Epilogue
Shortly after Pesach, I again ran into the friend who provided the two stories for the above entitled item prior to Pesach. He confided that his mother wondered why he did not share another story from her nuptials. Her father not only forbid her from accepting a diamond ring from her chassan, a young rabbi from a poor family, he refused her request for a vort (engagement party).
Instead he told her that they would send the money saved on the vort to a childhood friend in Eretz Yisrael, who had no money for his son's chasanah. We are not talking about great sums of money: the father was probably making no more than $20 a week at the time. But it was sufficient to allow one of the major rabbinic figures in Eretz Yisrael at that time to marry off his son, who himself is a famous rabbinic figure today. The father calculated the marginal happiness of a slightly larger expenditure on his own simcha against the joy of an entire chasanah for a poor couple.
I also shared with my friend that an acquaintance in the jewelry business had surprised me by saying she enjoyed the earlier piece. She told me that she is often puzzled by the ritual exchanges of jewelry, as if the future kollel couple, who may not even know where the first month's rent is coming from, were Prince William and Princess Catherine. I added that it's not as if the diamond ring represents any expression of deep feeling on the chassan's part, as in a story I once heard about a husband who tutored for years to replace his wife's glass wedding ring with a real diamond.
My friend replied that in his family the diamond ring actually does come from money that his sons save from various presents from the time they are young. Which goes to prove that those who think seriously about how to act, and don't just follow the prevailing social conventions, can transmit that quality from generation to generation.
The Harvard Business Review is not one of my frequent sources of mussar. But the recent Harvard Business School graduation speech by Professor Clayton Christensen, republished in HBR, provided plenty. Professor Christensen, who describes himself as "deeply religious," was asked by the students to address their post-graduation personal lives.
He began by urging the students to think seriously about the purpose of their lives, and now. He related that while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, trying to cram a difficult three-year course of study into two, he had decided to spend an hour each night reading, thinking, and praying about the purpose of life. "I apply the knowledge of the purpose of life every day," he told the graduates, but the advanced techniques of econometrics, to which he might have devoted that same hour of meditation, no more than once or twice a year.
Among the topics he addressed were: How can I be sure that my relationship with my spouse and family become an enduring source of happiness? How can I be sure that I'll stay out of jail? The latter question he assured his audience was by no means frivolous: Two of the other 32 Rhodes scholars in his class have spent time in jail, and Jeffrey Skilling, the disgraced former CEO of Enron, was an HBS classmate.
On staying out of jail, he shared a story from his time in Oxford. While there, he was the starting center on the Oxford basketball team. The team reached the British championships, and the final game fell on a Sunday. As a teenager, Christensen had vowed never to play ball on Sunday. The pressure to break that vow this one time was very great: He was letting down his teammates, whom he described as the best friends he had ever had. But he didn't.
Had he not kept his vow, he told the graduates, there would surely have been other cases involving extenuating circumstances. Over time -- many. It is precisely such "one time" deviations, he suggested, that can end in prison. From this he derives, "It's easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time."
If a gentile can come to such a realization about a teenage vow far beyond the demands of his religion, how much more so should we act the same with respect to Hashem's commandments?